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The problem with Obama's appeal to Israeli youth: they're the least likely to believe in peace

In his forceful speech before a youthful, applause-happy crowd in Jerusalem on Thursday, President Obama directed his remarks on the moribund peace process at young Israelis. "You have the opportunity to be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future," he declared, in calling for an "independent and viable Palestine" alongside a "Jewish and democratic state." Obama continued:

I know this is possible. Look to the bridges being built in business and civil society by some of you here today. Look at the young people who've not yet learned a reason to mistrust, or those young people who've learned to overcome a legacy of mistrust that they inherited from their parents, because they simply recognize that we hold more hopes in common than fears that drive us apart. Your voices must be louder than those who would drown out hope. Your hopes must light the way forward. 

But here's the catch: Many surveys show that young Israelis are actually more cynical and conservative about the peace process -- and particularly Obama's preferred two-state solution -- than their elders. Ahead of the president's visit this week, for example, the Israel Democracy Institute released a poll showing that a staggering 71 percent of Israeli Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 do not believe in Obama's ability to achieve a breakthrough in peace talks -- a percentage that steadily decreased as the respondents got older.

A Smith Research/Jerusalem Post poll in December found that only 42 percent of Israeli Jews aged 18 to 29 supported a two-state solution, compared with 63 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 69 percent of those aged 50 and over. In analyzing another survey around the same time, the Israeli organization Blue White Future highlighted the "more right-leading tendencies amongst younger voters" -- who, for example, were much more likely than older generations to support Israel annexing the West Bank (a position championed by rising star Naftali Bennett in Israel's recent elections) without offering its Arab residents civil rights. It's a trend that has been taking shape for several years now.

What explains the younger generation's skepticism? The Los Angeles Times provided some helpful background earlier this week:

Reared on suicide bombings, failed peace initiatives and segregation from Palestinians, Israel's younger generation is generally more conservative, more religious, less tolerant and less supportive of a two-state plan than their parents or grandparents.

That stands in marked contrast to the United States, where young people tend to be relatively liberal and where Obama enjoys his strongest support among those younger than 30.

"In comparison to their American counterparts, they are, by and large, older by several years - some would say, several lifetimes," Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston wrote on Thursday, in reference to Israel's "world-weary," post-Oslo, post-Rabin generation. "They enter college after years in the military, often followed by the escape-valve rehab of a marathon trek to remote continents."

Still, Burston argued that Obama's address this week -- one that "radically redefined centrism in Israel" -- could change minds. "This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear," he maintained.

To his credit, Obama made a glancing reference to young Israelis' disillusionment on Thursday, noting that he understood "why too many Israelis -- maybe an increasing number, maybe a lot of young people here today -- are skeptical that [peace] can be achieved." But he insisted that "as we face the twilight of Israel's founding generation, you -- the young people of Israel -- must now claim its future."

The question is: Did the president make any progress this week in persuading young Israelis to buy into the future he envisions? 

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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What is a chemical weapon, anyway?

When it comes to weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons have long taken a backseat to nuclear weapons in the competition for public interest and non-proliferation scrutiny. But the Syrian civil war has flipped the status quo on its head, as the mere use of such weapons threatens to drag the United States into another military intervention. So when Barack Obama says "the use of chemical weapons is a game changer," what is he talking about, and why does it make a difference in a war in which 70,000 people have already died at the hands of conventional weapons?

The Science of Chemical Weapons

For starters, a chemical weapon utilizes the toxic properties of chemicals to inflict physical pain ranging from mild discomfort to death on an individual. This can include blister agents (nitrogen mustard, sulfur mustard, and lewisite) that cause eye, skin, and lung irritation; blood agents (hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride) that prevent blood from transporting oxygen throughout the body; and nerve agents (tabun, sarin, and VX) that can cause instant death by shutting down the nervous system.

The type of chemical weapon is important, since not all chemicals technically qualify as "weapons" in the eyes of the international community. In this week's widely covered attack in Syria, for instance, initial U.S. intelligence assessments have found that chlorine -- not a nerve or blister agent -- was used. "That would not be the same as using a chemical weapons, as defined by international treaties," notes CNN's Barbara Starr. The difference, of course, is a chemical weapon will supposedly warrant a U.S. military response, while chlorine will only elicit more verbal hand-wringing.

Regardless, one of the main reasons the United States obsesses over the use of chemical weapons is concern about such weapons getting into the hands of terrorist groups.

The Impact of Chemical Weapons

It only takes a small amount of chemical weapons to have a devastating impact on a highly populated area. Because you get so much bang for your buck, chemical weapons have become, by far, the most widely proliferated and used weapon of mass destruction on earth.

"The military value of chemical weapons is such that the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiled tens of thousands of tons during the Cold War," notes the non-partisan Nuclear Threat Initiative group. "Countries traditionally have acquired chemical weapons before attempting to produce biological or nuclear weapons, because they are the least technologically demanding of the three. While 188 countries have joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and have agreed not to develop, produce, stockpile, or use chemical weapons, a handful of key countries-particularly in the Middle East-remain outside of the treaty."

Syria remains one of the countries that has refused to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles, which are considered to be significant, as FP's John Reed reported last year. U.S. military officials have said Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is "100 times the magnitude we experienced in Libya," and it is thought to include hundreds of tons of mustard gas, blister agents, sarin, and VX. Strategically, the United States is adamant about those chemicals not getting in the hands of neighboring terrorist groups such as Hezbollah or al Qaeda.

The History of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons had their coming out party during World War I, when 124,000 metric tons were used by combatants to devastating effect. Since then, chemical weapons have been used by Italy during World War II, Japan during its invasion of China, Egypt during the North Yemen Civil War, Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, among other occasions.

But the primary example that terrifies security analysts to this day is the release of sarin by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the mid-90s. This proved that terrorist groups were capable of creating and using sophisticated chemical weapons to horrendous effect. "The scale of the Aum Shinrikyo chemical ambitions revealed that non-state actors are fully capable of organizing and financing chemical programs," notes the Nuclear Threat Initiative." Because many chemicals commonly used in industry are themselves very toxic, terrorist organizations may also achieve their goals through the sabotage of chemical plants and shipments."

That goes a long way in explaining why the White House is willing to threaten war -- or something akin to it -- if Syria's chemical weapons arsenal becomes active.